Critical Point, by Geoffrey Waring

Critical Point, by Geoffrey Waring (Fiction)
1983. Post-colonial Africa is a place that attracts men with an eye for the main chance.
A cargo jet secretly departs a bush airstrip carrying the bullion reserves of an African Republic; the company’s chairman promises the crew a generous gratuity, and a crewmember’s family held hostage by corrupt army officers has been released. What can possibly go wrong … except a massacre?   
Four men with disparate motives attempt to save a struggling airfreight company from collapse. Against a backdrop of turbulent politics, sanction busting and armed rebellion, action speeds between Africa, Europe and the Middle East as driven men pursue their goals – and pay the price.
Fasten your seatbelt; Critical Point takes you into the cockpits of those anonymous jet freighters airline passengers seldom notice at airports – and into the hidden lives of the men who fly them.

From: Critical Point, by Geoffrey Waring

ONE

January 1983

William Gunn

TOOGOOD Aloysius Kibovo is very big, very black, and is sitting in the left-hand seat where I should be. His skin has the near-purple sheen of very ripe grapes and glows in the sun streaming through the L2 side window. He is also the irate chairman, chief executive and part-time Boeing captain of Affreight Express, the most optimistic airfreight company in Africa – perhaps the world. He takes the nav chart from his clipboard and hangs it over the sun visor, blocking both his view through his windscreen and the dull red ball in the dust haze of Western Niger. He runs his seat back, sets a foot on the panel footrest and turns to scan the engineer’s panel. My look is questioning but I know the answer.

‘You have control,’ he informs me. ‘Autopilot in nav, flight level three five zero.’ He gets the formal response.

‘I have control, three five zero.’

Flight engineer, Salim Njami, leans between us to tweak the cruise setting for number four engine while Toogood draws a deep breath and exhales dramatically.

‘I tell you, Captain, I’m not happy.’

I can see that. No toothy white breaks the ebony landscape of his features, but even piqued he maintains the formality of convention. Despite the fact I’m occupying the right-hand seat and my name is William Gunn I am his ‘captain’ – and that is what he’ll call me. Toogood is a firm believer in propriety on the job.

‘I can’t believe an Englishman did such a thing. No wonder Britain lost the empire.’ His basso profundo overrides the roar of slipstream. ‘It’s what Arabs might do and was totally unnecessary. Our board is currently considering the payment of expats’ salaries in sterling. He knew that. What are the English coming to these days?’

He rumbles on. We’d already experienced months of late, sometimes-missing salaries, now five days of roster changes and aircraft repositioning had further unsettled the crews. I wonder too, what commission Toogood might expect to trickle into his personal account from a grateful banking system when sterling salaries are approved. I’m unable to see our flight engineer seated behind me but imagine Salim’s expression. His mother, from a northern village in the neighbouring Republic of Kulzwana, has had more than a passing acquaintance with Muslim raiders intent on converting southern infidels to Allah. For Toogood, flight engineers barely existed, and French-speaking Muslims generated instant amnesia.

I consider saying nothing but civility demands an acknowledgement.

‘I wouldn’t know. I’m a Scot, remember?’

He greets my evasion with surprise.

‘Aren’t we brothers, then? Both our ancestors fought the English. It’s a pity Scotland lost, though.’

Encouraged by brotherhood and Mongoma’s independence from the British yoke, his teeth briefly dazzle. I wonder how he reconciles Affreight’s two UK flights a week, without which our aircraft would be hosting corrosion in a graveyard for exhausted Boeings, and his urge to re-fight colonial wars. Of course ferrying mine labourers, transporting disaster aid, and picking up peacekeeper and Hajj charters, together with intermittent freight flights for Mongoma International – Affreight’s Swiss joint-venture partner – should be covering operating costs. Where that operational income goes no one in operations knows and Affreight’s accounts always seem to be in arrears. AVECO, our UK heavy maintenance contractor’s account, certainly is. Toogood places accumulation before all. Profit versus maintenance? Minimal maintenance equals maximum profit.

I don’t want to hear yet another excuse why Clive Sutton’s salary hasn’t arrived so I turn away to scan the panels. Mach .81 long-range cruise, engine temperatures good and EPRs checked at 1.78. The aircraft has settled into our new cruise level and the solid monotone of airflow infuses again the fabric of our being. I have a look at the cruise tables; 25,000 lbs burn-off needed before we can climb again. We’ll be past the Algerian coast then; another two hours to Stansted for a night landing, with twenty tons of the world’s best coffee, individually wrapped mangoes and freshly cut orchids for Britain’s consuming classes. Glowing digits in the Omega show us on track, 470 knots ground speed, 2 degrees port drift and 280 miles to the Algiers FIR boundary. I wake up Brazzaville Flight Information.

‘Brazzaville, Brazzaville, Affreight Express November six one Juliet Tango on three four five two. Maintaining flight level three five zero. Echo tango alpha your FIR out, one-six four five. How copy?’

The controller responds on the third call and housework is complete. A glance across the centre console reveals Toogood has lost interest and reclines with eyes closed. Splayed hands, fingernails like pearl buttons, rest on the expanse of his stomach. He doesn’t do cruise; that’s the donkey work realm of first officers. As one of the first cadets sent to UK flying schools by newly independent African nations in the sixties, he’s faithfully absorbed the ‘Captain is God’ syndrome. Mind you, since his father is a traditional chief of Mongoma’s majority tribe, the concept of God in command sits easily with him. His father’s exalted rank provided Toogood with an excellent education; it also provided ministerial appointments for close relatives when Mongoma gained independence from a British government weary of quelling ethnic and tribal squabbles across borders of surrounding states.

The ex-RAF instructors at Oxford have drilled Toogood well and turned out a competent, if somewhat pedantic, pilot. Eight years in the fledgling national airline, known to Europeans as Air Mon-go-no, got him a command on their sole jet aircraft, an early Boeing 707-120 before the then-Minister of Transport departed unexpectedly to Switzerland in 1976 for health reasons, and the airline promptly collapsed.

But pedalling his CV to airline personnel departments wasn’t for Toogood. He would start his own airline. Having an uncle as Minister of Finance in Mongoma’s government was a definite plus – and there was a cheap Boeing to be had. Charter operator Affreight Express was born and Toogood, ever after, became ‘The Man From Uncle’.

Mongoma’s president, Clarence Tongo, also a proponent of African entrepreneurial spirit, saw merit in utilising the aircraft as a presidential flight and regularly caused havoc by commandeering the aircraft for presidential house calls to adjoining states. Fitting the presidential suite into the first-class cabin and then returning it to commercial seating is simply a business expense, Toogood maintains.

Expansion soon followed. Two US-registered 707 freighter conversions,were leased from TransCorp Finance of Zurich to joint venture company Mongoma International, which in turn dry-leased them to the operator, Affreight; chairman one now irate Toogood Kibovo. Navigators quickly became redundant with the arrival of Omega and inertial navigation and Toogood dispensed with loadmasters as soon as STAN systems were fitted. Flight crew now had to do their own load and trim sheets where no load control agents were available, but Toogood did realise he’d have to delegate some operational management. Enter William Robert Gunn from points east of Cyprus, and in an earlier life from Britain’s Highland Eagle, the independent travellers’ answer to government monopoly. I push that particular memory into the past where it belongs.

I, too, am annoyed with Clive Sutton though I have some sympathy for his predicament. After ferrying Delta Mike to Lasham for maintenance, Clive had extracted the number one vertical gyro from its avionics rack, and disappeared with it in lieu of two months’ unpaid salary. Spares were difficult to obtain for early generation Boeings and the remainder of Delta Mike’s crew kicked their heels in the hotel while the avionics contractor scoured Europe for a loaner unit. None were immediately obtainable so Toogood conceded defeat and transferred Sutton’s salary. A bemused taxi driver, following instructions from a generously tipping un-named gentleman, arrived at Lasham with the gyro unit soon after.

The delay wreaked havoc with the schedule, now even more aspirational than usual, and Affreight is short a first officer. Telexes to a London agency and a hastily placed classified in Flight magazine, turned up two possibles. Once Toogood and I reach Stansted we’ll take the train down to London to interview the applicants. It is unsaid, but we both know one will be hired on the spot – and preferably not the Englishman.

We settle into the hours of cruise and I look down on timeless endless Africa, its tortured landscape of the Ahaggar Mountains testifying to the cataclysms that gave birth to the upthrusting rock and lava fields. Ancient, convoluted watercourses wait for rain that never falls and the arid landscape unwinds beneath our eyes. The earth is scarred here, and I feel I’m looking at Mother Earth’s stretch marks, visible only to those who have the intimacy of a six-mile-high viewpoint. It seems vaguely voyeuristic.

Salim breaks my introspection as the sun drags its tired light down the demarcation line of night in our windscreens. ‘We’re still centre tank to engines feed and I need a piss. Do you want the meals heated?’

Toogood condescends to giving a him thumbs up.

‘Make mine a burnt offering,’ I tell him. Mongoma’s Holiday Inn caters Affreight’s crew meals and salmonella is known to lurk in the only two options – chicken or beef.

The cockpit door clacks shut and Toogood asks, ‘How’s he working out, Captain?’

‘Salim? He knows his job. That’s why we employed him.’

I also employed him because we’d crewed together out of Beirut with Levantine Wings and after I’d resigned and joined Affreight, which at the time was accepting the two leased freighters, Salim promptly called me for a job. He also had had enough of internecine killing and the destruction of a beautiful city.

Waking each morning at our crew residence in the Aamroussieh Hills overlooking the airport, with our first task being to check if our aircraft were still intact after a night of explosions and sirens, had done little for our peace of mind. Indications of another Israeli excursion sealed it. For Salim there were too many parts of Beirut where he was the wrong kind of Muslim – a live one – and the lesser risks of Mongoma appealed.

We pick at our meals as night enters the cockpit. Lights are dimmed and we ease into night operation. Toogood stirs long enough to take the meal trays out and returns with mugs of instant coffee; again he’s forgotten I take tea. With nightfall, the thin air of 35,000 feet thickens, muffling the sounds of our passage. It’s an illusion, we know, but it has a soporific effect and conversation is desultory.

Action starts again over the Mediterranean. Heavy traffic around Paris holds us at FL350 so top-of-drop is over the Channel. We score a go-direct to Lambourne VOR from a helpful controller and are radar vectored for the Stansted runway 05 ILS. Toogood flies a tidy approach and we slip down the glideslope to pick up the approach lights at a thousand feet beneath a layer of drizzling stratus that requires engine anti-ice. It’s 2130 local time; at least our body clocks are in the same zone.

We put Juliet Tango to bed as lifts arrive to offload the perishables. The agent, grumpy at the late arrival, accepts our gen-decs and manifests and we take a taxi to the Plough and Sickle country hotel alongside the never-sleeping M1. Affreight allowances don’t run to a Sheraton or Marriott but the Plough provides beer at breakfast and breakfast at supper time.

Reception has a telex for Toogood from the agency; one of the applicants has dropped out. I go to my room, have a shower, and then take a soda water from the mini bar. I ignore the whisky miniatures. It’s an early London train in the morning; the mangoes and orchids will probably be in Covent Garden before we arrive at Kings Cross.

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